After a week or so working the nightshift, I found that I had a two night gap and escaped promptly to Valparaíso, an hour and a half straight across Chile to the coast. Valparaíso was constructed like an ant-hill and its malodorous air betrayed a problem with canines, but it had what Santiago lacked in abundance: atmosphere. The graffiti, as in all cities, was variable, but much of it was street art of as high a quality as you could hope for. Pablo Neruda’s house, one of three, had been converted into a charming little museum, the views across the bay were refreshing and the chorrillanas, mountains of chips covered with onions, scrambled eggs and a thin steak, were generous and cheap. I spent twenty-four hours mostly wandering the steep, vibrantly painted streets, occasionally surprised by fluffy piles of rubbish getting to four disorderly feet and scooting out of my way. I didn’t have much time, but I could see why people who stayed said it was hard to leave.
Back in Santiago, at 7am on my final day of work, I slumped into the kitchen to start preparing breakfast, and found a six-foot-two Frenchman leaning on the counter, throwing abuse at the hostel cat. He stopped as I entered and looked sheepish. The cat was crouched in a corner, wide-eyed in indignation. “We used to be best friends,” explained the normally-friendly Cyprian, “but she betrayed me.” There was a pause in conversation, mostly because I could think of nothing to say to this. I tried to move things along: have you slept, no, how was last night, good, what did you do, drink. Another pause. Cyprian noticed the sink, overflowing with plates and glasses. He eyed me with narrow eyes, and asked why I hadn’t washed up. “I’m sick of doing everyone’s washing up overnight,” I replied, “because that’s not my job. There are signs telling everyone to do their own.” He considers this and is not convinced. He considers it unkind and unfair that I leave it for Yovi, the lady who does the cleaning. I counter that I don’t think Yovi should do it either. “Who do you think should do it then?” he sneers, on the point of aggression. “They’re not children,” I reply, absolutely no hint of nervousness in my voice, as I wonder if I’m really about to get into a fight over some dirty dishes. “I think people should do their own washing up.” Cyprian leans into my face. “I think you’re living in Disneyland” he snarls, and stalked into the dawn to try to find cigarettes.
I was not sorry to leave the hostel. Wanting to get away completely, I took an early morning bus Mendoza, a town just over the border in neighbouring Argentina. The road twisted up and over the mountains, into the snow and out again, and ended up in the permanent spring of the wine country. Three days passed like a montage in a holiday movie: sunny avenues, vineyards, endless wine-tasting and good food, all in the company of four pretty girls who were about to graduate from med school. I was aware that many of my friends were sitting finals and almost felt guilty. Argentine Spanish, once I got past the comical quirk of pronouncing Y sounds as “Sh”, was actually easier to understand than Chilean, and I began to regret not allowing myself more time on this side of the Andes.
Soon though I needed to move on to my next stop. I went back to Santiago and got on a thirty-hour bus to the northernmost town in Chile, Arica. With my previous longest bus journey, as far as I can remember, around half that time, I was prepared for a gruelling experience, but actually it went smoothly and didn’t feel too long. I slept effortfully, tried to read during the daylight hours and devoted time to my blossoming relationship with the songs of Patti Smith.
Arica is in the desert, just about, and accordingly is dusty and hot. It dropped to 19 degrees last night, and host mother Magdalena was sighted pulling on a woolly hat and gloves and exclaiming with good-natured surprise how cold it was in the winter. My job is to mind the internet café, which mostly involves wiping dust off the screens in the morning, and helping keep her two boys entertained. It’s a nice town, and a pleasant change to be out of the big cities of GDA and Santiago, but Arica has little to offer and I’m only staying a week. I enjoy having a beach to run on instead of smoggy streets, and the traffic is a whole different game. My now finely-honed urban road-crossing skills (exploit space, safety in numbers, controlled agression) no longer apply. There have been one or two times when I’ve been on the point of enquiring into a driver’s thought process as cars have braked to an abrupt halt in front of me, only to realise that I’m standing by a zebra crossing.
It’s been a strange trip, half travel, half odd-jobs, and time now feels very short until it’s all over. There are just two things left on the list, neither of which I’m sure what to expect of: the salt flats of Bolivia, and yoga and Hindu vegetarianism for two weeks in Peru.